Paleo Vegan or Pegan Oh My!

So many diets, so little time. Who can keep track? People keep asking me how Eat Is Love Magic Butter fits into the popular diets of our time. There's so much to say on this subject that left unchecked I could write a really long and boring post here. And wow, there is a lot of noise out there; half-informed opinions, speculation and a good measure of hype and flame. Are they all just fads? Pseudo-science? Marketing terms? Nutritional wisdom? The leading edge of science?

I'll say this much – it matters. You're the only one who can make the right choices for what you put in your body so it's worth your time to be informed. Yes, there's a lot of B.S. out there. Yes, the marketing gurus ruin everything. Yes, some of your friends are super annoying and want to tell you about the new miracle cure. Yes, you have to use your brain because it's not always straight-forward and the “experts” seem to be singing in completely different keys. Still, don't be one of those people who wonders if their coffee is gluten-free (which it is, by the way but you shouldn't have to ask). In this post, I'm going to take a very brief but objective and factual look at some of the popular diets you've been hearing about that will help you get a sane fix on the facts.

"Paleo” is one of the most misused terms out there. For starters, it is not an excuse to live on unlimited bacon. Far from it. The whole idea behind Paleo is to eat the way early humans ate because it seems like a reasonable idea that 4 million years of human evolution trained our bodies to eat a certain way. So the notion is that if we eat like early humans, we'll generally align our eating habits with things that are good for us.

The first thing people get wrong is the notion that early humans ate mostly meat. Early humans mostly ate whatever they could get. Most of the time that was plants because plants, as a general rule, do not run away when you try to eat them. Animals are a lot harder to get because they tend to run away when you try to eat them. The true, serious paleo folks understand this and eat a diet that is mostly plants. The meat they do eat is as close to wild as possible because the nutrition in factory-raised meat is actually pretty different from what our ancestors ate. I feel almost sorry for people who think that eating Paleo just means skipping the veggies and piling on the steak. Suffice to say, we should not be learning about anthropology by watching the Flintstones. It's a cartoon, folks. A cartoon. And that image of a brutish caveman grunting over a campfire with a charred leg of mastodon is ridiculous. Our ancestors were smart, just like we are. They were families, just like we are. And they made their way in life with every resource at their disposal just like we do. They ate mostly plants just like we should.

One detail I never hear raised on the subject of Paleo is the fact that our ancestors didn't actually live very long. The rules of the game of evolution are not based on longevity. The way to win the natural selection game is to reproduce as soon as possible, as often as possible and then die young so as to not slow down your clan. I knew a few kids in high school who seemed to want to live that way but most of us who made different choices have already outlived the average life span of a Flintstone. So at best, our ancestors' diet has a 4-million-year track-record of being well-suited for the live-fast-die-young crowd. Is it right for those of us who want to live long, healthy lives? Maybe. The jury is still out. Call me in another 4-million years and I'll have a better answer for you.

Paleo also avoids grains because supposedly early humans didn't eat grain. I don't know if I believe that. I spend a lot of time walking in nature and the closest thing to my hand most of the time is grass seed-heads. If was walking around the savanna looking for food, I'm pretty sure I'd be popping all those little grass seeds into my mouth and chewing them all day like gum. It's fair to say that those ancient grasses were really really different from modern wheat. For sure. But I don't think it's true that ancestral humans didn't eat grain. Of course they did.

Nonetheless, Paleo, when done right, is a great diet. Eating a wide variety of foods is an awesome way to get a full spectrum of nutrition, including all those cancer-fighting phyto-nutrients (a fancy word for the chemicals that give food their colors – and also happen to fight disease). Animals that are raised properly are full of healthy fats. Animals raised in factory conditions are subjected to cruelty that could bring you to tears and the food made from them is almost devoid healthy fats. A true Paleo lifestyle embraces the ideal that our eating habits affect not only our bodies but the world around us and we have a responsibility to that.

Vegan is often considered to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from Paleo. That's probably not actually quite true, but the vegan lifestyle is based on the idea that we shouldn't use animals for our personal purposes – not for our food, not for our clothes, not for lab tests, and not for public entertainment (including circuses, racetracks and most definitely not for dog-fighting and bear-baiting). True vegans don't eat any animal products whatsoever – no meat, no eggs, no milk and not even honey. But it's not just a diet, it's a lifestyle. Hard-core vegans don't wear leather. Some go so far as to make sure they never buy anything from companies who do animal testing. So even humanely-raised animals, their eggs their honey and their skin is completely verbotten. Nada.

I applaud the compassion. There's also the very good point that the resources we use to produce animal protein are excessive so raising animals to feed 7-billion humans simply cannot be done sustainably.

Vegan eating has to be done fairly precisely. I've known a lot of “french-fry-vegetarians” over the years – people whose only rule is to avoid eating animals and so they load up on processed junk that isn't actually good for you and without exception, the people I know who have lived that way have poor health. There are, in fact, some nutrients we need that are hard to come by in plants. If you don't take time to make sure you're getting those nutrients you can have deficiencies. It can be done, but you have to pay attention. There are some really healthy vegans out there – even some professional athletes and bodybuilders. I think we can assume those are not the folks who just go to McDoodles and order a burger, fries and a soda and just skip the meat.

Some critics of the vegan diet are of the mind that it has too many carbs. Some of the foods on the high-carb list might surprise you; beans for example. Aside from meat, this is probably the main point of contention between Paleo and Vegan. Yup. The humble bean. High in fiber, minerals and protein say the vegans. And low in fat. But the Paleo people villfiy it because of its high carb content. And, um, also because it's low in fat. Yup. Paleo eaters tend to embrace healthy fats while a lot of vegans are of the mind that fat is bad for you. Period. Or saturated fat is bad for you. Period. Or saturated fat that comes from animals is bad for you. Period. Or any fat from animal sources is bad for you. Period.

I guess we all have to make up our own minds about beans. Apparently it's part of your social contract as a human. Get straight on beans.

Vegans have a fair amount of statistical data supporting the notion that they have lower incidences of cardio-vascular disease and cancer. There is some question about that data and if you're so inclined, I suggest doing your own research. The vegan diet, done right, is a great choice for a lot of people and for our planet. Just don't do it half-informed. Don't be a french-fry vegan.

"Keto” seems like the buzzword these days and again, I see it misinterpreted a lot – especially by companies selling their food with “Keto” on the label while what's inside is far from it. The basic science behind Keto is that the fat you eat does not turn into fat on your body. It's basically true. When you eat fat, your body doesn't just send that fat to your their new home in your love-handles. The fat in your love-handles is made out of leftover carbs. The exact process is really interesting and everyone should learn about it but it's too long for this post. But basically, eating fat doesn't make you fat. Eating sugar makes you fat. The Keto diet is designed to train your body to burn fat for energy instead of carbs. You do that by eating an extremely lo-carb diet. This triggers a biological process that everyone seems to be talking about called “ketosis”. Again, it's too complex for this post but if you're interested, it makes really interesting reading and at the very least you'll end up with a much better understanding of how your liver works.

The Keto diet, followed strictly, is a really really different way of eating from what most of us are used to. Some might even justifiably call it extreme. And it has to be because the goal is to literally reprogram your entire metabolism. Because it's still a fairly new thing, there's some debate as to exactly what it is, who it's good for and what foods qualify as keto-friendly or not. And because it's still a fairly new thing, I'm suspicious of claims about the long-term health impacts. There's some evidence that it might be a good choice for people with specific health issues but as a general way of eating for life, there are some flags.

The jury is still out on this one for me. There are a lot of foods on the no-no list that I think are really good for you. Most fruits, for example. I'm pretty sure fruit is good for you. Again, all those colorful phyto-nutrients that fight cancer, promote general immunity and cell function. Let's not skip those.

My favorite thing about the Keto diet is that it dispels the myths about fat and cholesterol that have taken over our collective psyche. Humans need fat in our diet. The thing is, not all fats are created equal. There are books upon books upon books on this subject but you can do pretty well remembering three things; 1) Omega-3 fats are good. 2) Trans-fats are poison. 3) Try to get your fat from real food (like nut butter!).

Recently, we've been introduced to a new vocabulary word - “Pegan.” My first reaction was like “Really? We really need another diet? Seriously?” At first blush, I thought it must be like a Vegan version of Paleo. Nope. That's something else; “Paleo-Vegan.” And I was about to write it off because it just seemed like one more fad that we didn't need. But still, I read up on it and as it turns out, I've been eating Pegan (ish) for years but just didn't have a name for it. That being said, I think “Pegan” is an unfortunate name. It's inelegant and kinda dumb sounding.

Ok, ok. But what is is. The idea is to combine the best elements of Paleo and Vegan because when you look more closely at those two diets, they actually have a lot in common. They both embrace the idea that we should be eating a variety of plants, that we should eat in a way that supports our bodies, community and our world and that the processed commercial food that most people eat most of the time is junk. Yeah. I'm with that.

There is some great reading with more detail than I can provide here. I particularly recommend the work of Dr. Mark Hyman, who originally framed the concept (and is also a pretty brilliant guy in general). My view differs from strict Pegan guidelines in that I really embrace fruit and I think beans are pretty good for you (there we go with the beans again. Are you bean-savvy yet?).

Regarding animal protein, Pegans eat humanely-raised meats and part of the idea here is to not be excessive or gratuitous. Meat, scientifically speaking, is a more efficient source of nutrition. You don't need to eat tons of it. Plants and mushrooms are packed with things that keep your body functioning properly. I think I once heard it said that meat is your fuel while plants and mushrooms are your medicine. Most of the food on your plate should be plants and mushrooms.

That's a detail I want to mention, if nothing else, just because it's one of those little stupid things that bugs me. Mushrooms are not plants. Mushrooms are fungi. When people say “I only eat plants” while chowing down on a portobello sandwich, it just irks me. And while we're at it, the probiotics in your yogurt, kimchi, supplements and fermented pickles are none of the above. They're bacteria (aka “germs”), which are a completely different type of life from plants, animals, fungi or vulcans. And the tiny organisms in your beer, bread and wine – those are yeasts. Yeasts are fungi (think microscopic mushrooms). Maybe none of this matters. But we're living things and we eat other living things so maybe it does matter. It seems to me that we should respect our food enough to know something about it.  

That's actually where I land on the question of eating meat. For the past few billion years, the living things on earth have survived by eating other living things. Even plants get some of their nutrients from the soil, which is made largely from the tiny bits of (formerly) living things.

When you think about it, plants are not vegetarians.  I know, right?

There are a few exceptions (like blue-green algae) but overwhelmingly, every living thing on the planet is recycling the same organic matter that's been around for billions of years. When I think about it, I realize that I'm directly connected to the life that was here before the continents broke up. I can think about the dinosaurs and say “that's my kin.” I can think about Jesus and Buddha and Mohamed and say “that's my kin.” I can think about the primordial ooze that became the first life and say “that's my kin.” You and I can think about each-other and say “that's my kin.” And the thing that connects all of us is that we've been literally eating each-other for more than 3 billion years. It's the very most fundamental function of the web of life that makes us family. Life has persisted and continued this way since the beginning. It's not wrong or evil to eat another living thing and it doesn't have to be heartless. In fact, it may be the most noble and beautiful thing you can do in this life, crazy as it sounds. Part of your contract as a living being is to eat other living beings and then die so that other living beings can continue the process of life.  It's really quite awe-inspiring.

It's not an excuse for cruelty or reckless gluttony. When you choose a food, you have a lot of power in your hands. Eating puts you directly on the front line and you can promote compassion or you can support a system that's poisoning our legacy. Pity the goldfish who has to live in his own toilet. We don't have to do that. We have a choice. We can eat cleanly. Live cleanly. Love cleanly. It's your body and it's our world. When you love what you eat, life loves you back. See how that works?

As for the original question of how Magic Butter fits in, the answer is basically, YES. Since there are no animal products, it's Vegan. Since it's made from simple, sustainable nuts and loaded with healthy fats and protein, it's Paleo. It can absolutely be part of a Keto diet but because of the carb content of pecans and cashews, strict Keto followers need to pay attention to the numbers. Since it's a balanced, sustainable, healthy, responsible food, it's a perfect choice for Pegans. It's naturally gluten-free and contains no added sugar or palm oil. As for people who just want something mind-blowingly delicious that is also good for you, the answer is a resounding YES YES YES YES. That's why it's the food dreams are made of.

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